Saturday, December 17, 2011

Cheer Up, Bill! This'll Probably Be Your Only Shot at Being the Sentimental Favorite

About a month ago, my thoughts on Tim Tebow were that he was going to alter about three hours of my life for the better. Back in April when the NFL schedule came out, I saw that the Pats were at Denver on December 18 and confidently expected it'd be one of the dullest games of the year. By November, I believed Tebow's ascension to the Broncos' quarterback position would make the game one of the more interesting ones on my home TV schedule, and I was duly grateful.

The game still promises to be an entertaining one, but the price I'm paying for it is far, far, far too high. Compared to being forced to endure the endless Tebow blah that now composes 110 percent of U.S. sports journalism, two on aisle 10th row orchestra for "Hugh Jackman, Back on Broadway" would be a bargain.

It's hard to tell which set of Tebow bloviators are the worst, his fans or his critics. Skip Bayless has done everything but speculate as to how Tebow's upcoming win in the Iowa caucuses will impact the Broncos in the playoffs. On the other hand, the stat-minded football blogs who're all trying to become the pigskin Bill James are tying themselves into numerical knots attempting to prove that Tebow's undeniably subpar passing statistics are more important than the even more undeniable fact that before he became the starter the Broncos stunk, and now they're pretty good.

Add to this the irrelevant facts Tebow is both a demonstrative person and a devoutly religious one, and we have a perfect storm of what passes for news in the 21st century -- a barrage of thunderclaptraps, cloudbursts of bullshit, all accompanied by gales of superheated air which strip the branches off one's soul. Through no fault of his own (I blame Urban Meyer, who had four years to teach the kid to throw and didn't), an increasing number of fans now resent Tebow for his stirring comeback victories, because they turn up the volume on the noise that's driving them to distraction.

Hype is not the hypee's fault. Doesn't matter. Tebow may be blameless for the baggage he's forcing fans to carry, but nevertheless, many fans outside New England will be doing something Sunday they never imagined possible -- rooting like hell for Bill Belichick. Surely the only power capable of defeating football Virtue Made Man is the sport's embodiment of evil.

Ordinarily, I'd say that sentiment was a stone lock bet for Sunday. And if it was just Belichick vs. Tebow, it would be. One of the less remarked elements of Belichick's makeup is the part which sees football as a fan. I'm sure there's a part of him that reacted to Tebow's initial success just as I did, to wit "Well, something new under the sun. This'll be more fun than getting a game plan ready for Kyle Orton."

I also believe Belichick, like all successful coaches, is acutely aware of his public image and uses it to his advantage whenever he can. As any wrestling heel knows, villainy is both a good steady gig and more fun than playing the babyface. Stomping on America's Newest Sports Craze might give the Patriots the champion's essential arrogance they have notably lacked in an otherwise successful season.

I listened carefully to Belichick during his "Patriots All Access" segment last night, and two things were clear. One, he appreciates Tebow's talents. Two, he knows what those talents are, and therefore, we can infer he has a handle on how to neutralize them.

Showing a clip of a Tebow scramble, Belichick said, "See, there's a running back." Precisely. The mystery of Tebow the player vanishes once you stop thinking of him as a running quarterback and start seeing him as a running back who passes, or more accurately, as a single wing tailback running a 1940s offense.

The principles of defeating that offense are not secrets. They're in particularly dusty books in Belichick's football library. The principles of defeating the option offense the Broncos use with Tebow are not secrets, either. They're just ideas that've been forgotten because their past success made that offense obsolete at levels of football. And of course, the principles of containing a running quarterback are taught to every NFL defense in practice for many games each season.

Boiling down decades of football theory, those principles all rest on the same idea: Do your damn job. No matter what you see in front of you, follow your assignment and nothing else, even, no, especially if it appears to be running you right out of the play. Follow that rule, and the option gains maybe two yards a play. In theory, the Tebow-led Denver Broncos would never score.

In practice, defensive football players are cursed/blessed with a psychopathic level of aggression in action that makes not pursuing the ball cause serious stress. It's like turning into a skid or prudent portfolio management -- the superego knows the damn rules, but the id won't hear of them.

For six weeks in succession, other NFL defenses have come close to making theory reality against the Broncos -- until the fourth quarter, when human nature kicks in, whereupon Tebow and his mates lay another of those comebacks on them.

The Patriots are known for nothing if not discipline. In the usual order of things, I'd say the 7 1/2 points they're giving is an underlay Christmas present. Belichick has enough respect for Tebow to create a game plan designed to humiliate him rather than just win the game.

Unfortunately for Evil Genius Belichick, just like in the movies, his plans rest on the abilities of his helmeted henchmen. New England's defensive henchpeople have just finished making Don Orlovsky and Rex Grossman look like Dan Marino. Their role has become a bizarre mirror image of Tebow's role with Denver. Turn in a couple of big plays, then step aside and let the offense/defense win the game.

I never really expect the Patriots to lose. I have every confidence that Chief Henchman Tom Brady will generate the 30 or so points to which the Pats have become accustomed.

But I don't believe the 2011 Pats have the wherewithal to humiliate people. The Tebow bubble won't pop this week. I look for an even more irritating development, Tebow's nobility in a heroic loss where his passing stats resemble those of conventionally successful quarterbacks. This will force his admirers and detractors to completely trade the arguments they've been using the last two months, abandoning any pretense of intellectual honesty.

THERE'S your Lock of the Year.


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